MIAMI – The Celtics probably should be thankful they are closing out the season against desperate teams – all of them with some degree of post-season hope.
The Heat, after nearly coming back Monday on the Celtics, pushed them hard again Wednesday night. But the Celtics, this time handling the Heat’s zone better, put together one of their best stretch performances of late for Wednesday night’s 112-102 win over Miami.
And this time the style of win was as important as the “W” itself.
“We needed to do tough things, and we’ve had a number of good things happen in the last month, with a stretch we’d like to have back in the middle of it,” coach Brad Stevens said. “But I do feel encouraged by our play if we can do tough things. If we’re not tough, we don’t have a chance against the Pacers.”
The Pacers, a winner Wednesday night in Detroit, remain tied with the Celtics for the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. A win Friday night in Indianapolis would push the Celtics a game ahead into the fourth seed and give them the series tiebreaker. Of paramount importance in home court in the first round against this essentially guaranteed opening playoff opponent.
Though the Celtics have been here before – thinking that they’ve eliminated all of those annoying season-long kinks – that’s what recent success seems to be telling them now. Last Saturday’s loss in Brooklyn, they hope, is an outlier.
“I’d just say our communication is at a great point and then our attention to detail,” Kyrie Irving said. “I think where at the beginning of the season, not knowing our understanding where to give each other space and understanding how special guys are on this team, but we want to help each other by doing the little things. So, offensive rebounding, being in the right position defensively, using our length to our advantage, so we keep the shell of our defense and make guys take tough shots.”
It also helps that Gordon Hayward continues rounding his game into form.
He came off the bench with a 25-point performance that included 12-for-13 shooting from the line. Irving, Wednesday night’s early force, scored 23 points, including 3-for-9 3-point shooting, to go along with 21 points and 10 rebounds from Al Horford.
Though they rank 29th in the league in attempted free throws (19.6 per game), Hayward’s ability to drive, challenge Heat big men Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside, and get to the line boosted production. They were 27-for-31 overall Wednesday night, in addition to shooting 9-for-24 from downtown, all of it against Miami’s omnipresent zone.
This is the kind of balance the Celtics will need if they are to have any hope in the playoffs.
“You want a happy balance, especially when you’re playing with the type of players we have on this team,” Irving said. “You want to stay aggressive getting to the rim. We challenged them at the rim and stayed aggressive and we got rewarded with some early bonus situations in quarters and then really down the stretch able to extend the lead by slowing the game down for us but really getting to the free throw line and knocking one of two or two of two down. So it definitely allowed us to extend and set up our defense at the other end.”
And even at that they had to sweat.
The game truly started to turn when Hayward hit a deep 3 with 3:57 left for a 103-96 lead, Whiteside fouled out, and Horford hit from the key for a 105-96 lead with 3:15 left. Irving hit the second of two free throws for a 10-point edge, before Dion Waiters hit from the deep corner.
Hayward, though, drove the lane for a 108-99 lead with 2:14 left. Waiters hit from deep again, but Hayward drove for the foul, boosting the lead to 110-102 with his 10th free throw of the night.
“It’s huge,” Hayward said of the crunch time plays. “Everyone made big time plays for us, and we want to be playing the best we can be going into the playoffs. These are all games that feel like playoff games, and playing the same team twice in a row even made it feel more like that, too. It was good.”